I believe customer service is the single most important element in practice building. Great customer service is responsible for everything you want to achieve in your practice: high patient demand, high fees, and higher sales per patient visit. In view of that, let's take a look at how your practice is performing with four key convenience factors.
My goal in this exercise is to identify specific examples where many eye care practices fall short. I do that with the full understanding that there are good reasons why practices struggle with these factors. I'm not saying the remedy is easy. But the really great eye care practices work toward excellence in areas like these.
You may reason that these four items are not that important, but they are if you want to grow your practice. They are just four signs of how much emphasis you place on customer service. If you have some lapses in these areas, chances are good there are additional service breaks occurring in your practice. The culture in your organization turns to what is best for the staff instead of what is best for the patient.
Do you ever notice how often incoming phone calls go to your office voice mail? It is easy for the practice owner and manager to not be very aware of this factor since they don't answer the phones very often. Pay attention to it and check it yourself from time to time.
Patients who call your office but fail to reach a human on the first try are being inconvenienced. When your staff finally gets around to calling back, the patient may no longer be available. The appointment does not get made and lots of things can happen; including finding an ECP who is more convenient.
If your front desk staff allows many calls to go to voice mail, you should investigate the cause and fix it.
You don't have enough phone lines. This one is not your staff's fault – the phone doesn't even ring when someone calls and the lines are tied up. It goes straight to voice mail. Remember that your lines are used for outgoing calls also. Easy to fix.
Not enough staff. If you think you are saving money by not hiring that extra employee you really need, you may actually be losing more in patient good will. In some cases, there may be enough staff, but too few who answer phones.
Staff members who don't care. Many employees don't know that letting calls go to voice mail can be damaging. Other times, employees are lazy or they are trying to send a message to management that they are overworked. This is a deeper problem, but once it is identified you can go about the training and culture building to change the bad attitudes.
Evenings and Saturdays
I know that evening and Saturday office hours are not desirable work times for staff and for doctors. I get it. But customer service is not about what is good for you – it's about what is good for the customer. Your competition is open on evenings and Saturdays and these times are very attractive to a patient group which is very important to you: those with jobs!
Practice owners who don't want to work evenings and Saturdays should look for an associate doctor who can work them. Work with existing staff to identify those who would not mind evenings and Saturdays in exchange for a full day off in the week. Hire all new employees with the understanding that evenings and Saturdays are a requirement.
How accommodating is your staff when patients call with an urgent need? Of course some judgment is needed and you can only accept so many people per day before you begin to adversely affect the quality of care, but have you checked this lately?
Let's face it; there is a very real incentive for staff members to accept fewer patients. Their day becomes easier. Of course, some employees keep the good of the practice uppermost at all times, but if one can follow the rules and still say no to a caller, many will do just that. If your office procedures were more streamlined and if you delegated more, would you be able to say yes to a few of those urgent needs? If your appointment schedule were not so rigid, would you be able to see a few more exams each day?
If you were to make a change in this area, your annual practice revenue would jump up significantly. And many patients who really need you would become extremely loyal to your practice. Perhaps your staff is not sure which calls are really urgent and which are not. If the patient thinks it's urgent and if you are able to see them, I'm not sure it really matters. True medical emergencies should always be seen the same day. Talk about it with your staff.
Delays to call the patient in
Many doctors work pretty hard to stay on schedule only to have inefficiency and apathy at the front desk cause delays in getting the visit started. Patients wait and become bored as they begin to think about the other things they need to do in their lives; the experience at your office quickly slipping into dissatisfaction. You may be able to recover with the good things you do during the exam, but why start out in the hole? Observe and review the steps your front desk and technicians are taking before calling the patient in. Can you change some of it to get them in quicker?
History questionnaire. Can you shorten it? Can you just use it for new patients only? Can your staff tell callers to go to your website, download the form and complete it before they arrive?
Insurance verification. This really can be done before the patient arrives.
Organizing forms and papers. Do it the day before the appointment.
Enter patient demographic data into the system. This can be done in advance and more data added after the patient is called in.
Technicians need to review the previous exam record before beginning the pretesting. A quick review is good but I see some techs who feel they must memorize every detail. Just get started.
Let me know how your practice performs in these four areas, whether it is good or bad.
Best wishes for continued success,
Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week
Dr. Gailmard's new book, Practice Management in Optometry: A Blueprint for Success Based on the Optometric Management Tip of the Week, is now available on Amazon.